Shaazka Beyerle: The Tulip Revolution must not go wrong now

The new leadership should stop squabbling and present a programme for democracy
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Before most in the West had the time to find Kyrgyzstan on the map, widespread discontent over fraudulent parliamentary elections, corruption and poverty came to a raucous climax in the streets of Bishkek. Civilian-based power flexed its muscles, and again proved that it is not how many police, soldiers, weapons, jails, censored media, rigged courts and corrupt officials an authoritarian has; it's whether or not they remain loyal and do his bidding. Once orders are defied, ignored or half-followed, the ruler's power crumbles like a house of cards.

Before most in the West had the time to find Kyrgyzstan on the map, widespread discontent over fraudulent parliamentary elections, corruption and poverty came to a raucous climax in the streets of Bishkek. Civilian-based power flexed its muscles, and again proved that it is not how many police, soldiers, weapons, jails, censored media, rigged courts and corrupt officials an authoritarian has; it's whether or not they remain loyal and do his bidding. Once orders are defied, ignored or half-followed, the ruler's power crumbles like a house of cards.

But Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution could be still-born - marred as it has been by looting, protester aggression and several fatalities. The next days are critical in determining if what originated as a popular, largely non-violent uprising brings forth democratic change or another variant of authoritarian rule. The stakes are high: what happens in Kyrgyzstan could have an impact on democracy movements in nations throughout the region, as well as the behaviour of their respective dictators.

If the Tulip Revolution is successful, the contagion effect of non-violent uprisings in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and possibly Lebanon (2005) will accelerate. It will invigorate fledgling democracy movements in the rest of the "stans", namely Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, as well as Azerbaijan, Belarus, and perhaps Iran, culturally and socially close to Kyrgyzstan's south. Russia's new "activist-citizens", striking and protesting over economic policies and moves to centralise political power, may be further inspired. Last Friday, 1,000 people demonstrated in Belarus against the dictator Alexander Lukashenko. An organiser claimed they were emulating Kyrgyzstan.

Regimes will predictably increase their repression in order to snuff out the sparks of people power. Truncheon-wielding police broke up the protest in Belarus. The opposition and civil society in these countries should anticipate crackdowns, plan survival strategies, and alter their non-violent tactics in order to minimise risks to civilians. Rather than vulnerable street protests, lower-risk activities can be staged, including leafleting, graffiti and mass public actions such as co-ordinated horn honking/headlight flashing, or walking/driving at half speed. The latter was brilliantly used to launch a campaign at the height of Pinochet's brutal regime in Chile.

If the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan flops, it could diminish hope for democratic change in other countries, and there could be a tendency to blame the method rather than flaws in its execution. Unlike Georgia's Rose Revolution and Ukraine's Orange Revolution, the popular uprising in Kyrgyzstan does not seem to have been well-planned, structured, or strategic in the application of civilian-based power. The political opposition was not unified, and most seriously, non-violent discipline wasn't maintained - hence the present disarray.

The new opposition-based leadership must stop squabbling, coalesce and present a demonstrable political programme for democratic transition and economic recovery. Without these steps, a power vacuum might develop, and the new leaders could be susceptible to a takeover attempt by the former ruler, Askar Akayev, who is already making ominous noises from the sidelines.

Such tragedies have already occurred. In Burma, in 1988, people power removed the dictator, Ne Win, and rejected the army's replacement. But within two months, infighting and a lack of strategic planning led to the collapse of the movement's momentum, and the military seized power again, killing thousands.

In 1985, Sudanese citizens forced Jaafar Numeiri from power, but the military and a group of civilians struck back and took control by promising to hold free elections the following year. The military intervention and the opposition's lack of a clear strategy destroyed an opportunity for democracy. The ensuing years of carnage in the south, and now Darfur, are the legacy.

It is encouraging that the new leaders are co-operating with police to control night-time marauders. Moreover, there's a distinction between using violence as a strategic tool, versus the actions of angry protesters, agent-provocateurs or just opportunistic looting, as is occurring in Kyrgyzstan.

People power is more than protests. It consists of large numbers of civilians withdrawing co-operation from an oppressor and refusing to obey. Non-violence is used strategically to erode the loyalty of the opponent's sources of support and control and encourage defections from security forces. If the Kyrgyz authorities fear they will be physically harmed or collectively punished, they may react badly. The strategic ramifications are enormous. Even with Akayev sidelined, unrest could provide the pretext for a military coup or, possibly, Russian intervention.

Ending oppressive rule is only half the battle. Establishing democracy, justice and improved living standards is the other half. This next chapter of the Tulip Revolution is now being written.

icnc@nonviolent-conflict.org

The writer is Vice President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

Comments